Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings

Written by Kimberley Manerikar

Arvo Pärt
(b. 1935)

Those who are unfamiliar with the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt may be surprised to learn that for eight years—from 2011 to 2018—his works were performed more than those of any other contemporary composer in the world.

While his overtly religious themes and simple tonal style have incited scandal in the former Soviet Union and alienated him from the academic establishment, Pärt’s music has amassed a tremendous following around the globe.

Pärt studied at the Tallinn Conservatory under the tutelage of Heino Eller.  As a student and for the early part of his career he worked as a recording engineer with Estonian radio and as a composer for film and theatre.

His earliest stylistic traits were neo-classical, but before long he had obtained some scores and textbooks from outside the former Soviet Union and had undertaken a period of study and experimentation with serial techniques.

It wasn’t until a substantial breakthrough in 1976-7 when, through a particularly active period of composition, Pärt laid the foundations for a new approach to composition; his ‘tintinnabuli’ style.

Tintinnabuli’ finds its inspiration in the counterpoint of early Christian chant and can be understood as a homophonic texture in which one melodic voice moves amongst the notes of a single triad while the other moves mostly stepwise amongst the notes of a scale.  The resulting effect is of a kind of non-functional tonality; one in which the harmonies are familiar, but the ways in which harmonies behave can seem unpredictable.

Fratres (Latin for “Brothers”) was composed in 1977 during the period of explosive productivity that marked the development of Pärt’s signature style.   It was composed in three parts for unspecified instrumentation, and adapted in 1980 to include an additional, more virtuosic, instrumental layer.

The structure of the piece is a set of variations punctuated by a recurring percussion motif.  The drama of the piece plays out in the tension between the unchanging motif and the shifting and developing variations.

While strict mathematical rules were employed to structure many facets of the musical work, Pärt’s music seems to convey an intuitive emotional depth and expressivity.  His musical language dwells in contractions; seemingly ancient and modern, familiar and unfamiliar, rigorous and free.

Bits of Beauty
Tobin Stokes (b. 1966)

Canadian composer and former VS composer-in-residence Tobin Stokes creates operas, concert music, music for theatre, and scores for television and film.

He has had residencies with the Urban Youth Choir Festival, the International Choral Kathaumixw Festival, the Symphony Orchestra Academy of the Pacific, and the Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy.

Stokes has composed music for both the XV Commonwealth Games and the 2010 Olympics and has had his music performed for Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Bits of Beauty was written for the Victoria Symphony in 2007.  Initially composed in six brief, 1-3 minute sections, Stokes has since added at least six more “bits” to create a modular composition that can be arranged in different configurations of varying length.

Stokes took a different approach to each short piece—but all in the beguiling search for beauty.  “And of course the wonderful thing is,” says Stokes, “you’ll never find it.  As soon as you get close it gets further away.”

Stokes has captured something of that feeling with these short pieces—like with a fistful of sand, the harder you fix your grasp, the more it slips away.  Each piece is a discrete fragment; a momentary glimpse of sun, or the return of a distant memory.

Stokes seems to unspool a strand of melody and to briefly revel in it and in the rich and varied timbre of the string orchestra before letting it vanish, leaving a colouristic impression of a lived moment and little other trace.

Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

In the years leading up to the composition of his Serenade for Strings, Tchaikovsky’s life was marked by significant upheaval.  In 1877 a brief though painful marriage ended in separation.  Tchaikovsky left his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory and undertook an extended period of travel and composition funded by a wealthy businesswoman and patron of the arts, Nadezhda von Meck, who had taken a personal interest in his music.

After having completed his fourth symphony and his opera Yevgeny Onegin, both of which he had begun before his marriage, Tchaikovsky felt like a shadow of his former self.  He lamented his struggles with composition, complaining of his “weak and rotten little themelets” and of the intense labour he had to pour into the composition of each measure of music.  While he privately struggled, he continued to write.

By October of 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck that his muse had been kind—in quick succession he completed The Year 1812 Solemn Overture, written to commemorate the successful Russian defense against Napoleon’s invading forces, and his Serenade for StringsTchaikovsky remarked of the overture; “I wrote it without much warmth and enthusiasm—therefore it has no great artistic value.  The serenade, on the other hand, came from an inward impulse.  I felt it, and I venture to hope that this work is not wholly lacking in artistic qualities.”

The serenade was well received and has since become a staple of the string orchestra repertoire.  Tchaikovsky strikes a nice balance with this piece, keeping the tone relatively light while creating formal interest by creating thematic connections across movements.

The first movement is a sonatina with a slow introduction in the style of Mozart.  Tchaikovsky uses the opening phrase to introduce a material germ that will provide thematic unity across movements: a melody based on a simple scale.  This straightforward yet impactful opening returns at the end of the movement and again in the fourth and final movement of the piece.

The second movement waltz has been so popular that it was immediately repeated at the premiere performance and is often performed independently of the other movements.  Here the basic descending scale of the slow introduction in the first movement is transformed into an ascending scale in the opening melody.

In the opening of the third movement, Élégie, Tchaikovsky uses contrary motion in the melody and the bass as he superimposes the ascending and descending scalar elements introduced in the first two movements.

At a time when many of his Russian compatriots were distancing themselves from Western influences and taking a Russian nationalist approach to composition, Tchaikovsky sought to reconcile his twin influences.  In the final movement of the serenade he uses two Russian folk tunes, skillfully drawing together the materials of the piece in a movement that follows a robust formal plan and provides a climactic conclusion.